How to Become a Sports Nutritionist

What is a Sports Nutritionist?

Sports nutritionists deal with issues involved in promoting optimal performance for athletes. They work with individuals to assess their nutritional requirements and advise them on what foods to eat to achieve their physical fitness and performance goals.

A sports nutritionist works with athletes to develop meal plans, evaluate the results and make adjustments as necessary. Food recommendations are based on sound scientific findings, the client’s personal preferences and cost concerns.

Sports nutritionists stay informed of the latest nutritional scientific research and incorporate new findings into their dietary recommendations. Aspiring sports nutritionists should also possess specific skills and personal characteristics, like organizational skills, an empathetic personality, and the ability to communicate clearly.

What Does a Sports Nutritionist Do?

The essential role of a sports nutritionist is to teach athletes how to utilize nutrition to help maximize their ability to perform on the field of play. However, the job is far more complex than simply suggesting what foods an athlete should eat and what foods they should avoid.

A big part of a sports nutritionist’s job is to analyze an athlete’s complete lifestyle. That is, they take various factors like the foods the client eats, how much they eat, and even when they eat into consideration when developing a healthier plan for the future. Not only that, but sports nutritionists also examine the athlete’s training schedule, work schedule, and any medications or supplements they take in order to devise a well-informed nutrition plan that maximizes their client’s ability to do their job.

Another component of being a sports nutritionist is constantly analyzing their client’s performance. They will work with their clients to establish short-term and long-term goals for nutrition, and monitor their client’s ability (or inability) to meet those goals. Based on the performance of their client, a sports nutritionist might tweak the nutrition program they’ve outlined to be more fitting for where their client is at in his or her nutritional journey.

Yet another way that sports nutritionists help their clients achieve their goals is by developing nutritional plans that maximize endurance and stamina. This part of the job relies on an understanding of the properties of food and how they can fuel the body when significant physical output is needed. So, a sports nutritionist might devise a meal plan that’s heavy on meats and starches to aid in the recovery of muscles after an intense workout or game.

Lastly, a sports nutritionist works with clients to develop a post-performance routine to help rebuild depleted resources. This stage brings all the previous stages together – meal planning, analysis of lifestyle, evaluating results, and so forth – to help the athlete reach his or her goals and do so while maintaining their health and managing the effects of such intense physical output on their bodies.

Is a Nutritionist and a Dietitian the Same?

Though there are many similarities between nutritionists and dietitians, primarily in that they both strive to help people live healthier lives via the foods they eat, these occupations are not the same. The biggest difference between these two occupations is that nutritionist is not a legally protected title. That is, in many states, anyone – regardless of their education or work experience – can call themselves a nutritionist.

Conversely, a dietician is a legally protected occupation in which workers must undergo specific education and training. Furthermore, to legally work as a dietician, one must acquire the proper licensure and/or certifications from the state in which they intend to work.

Where Does a Sports Nutritionist Work?

In private practice, sports nutritionists may act as personal consultants to professional athletes and others whose goal is to optimize their physical performance. They may also be employed by corporate wellness centers, colleges and universities, sports medical practices and sports teams. Sports nutritionists may become experts in their field and teach on the college level.

What Do You Learn in a Sports Nutritionist Degree Program?

  • Dietetics – The study of dietetics involves learning how diet, nutrition, vitamins, nutrients, and so forth have a hand in one’s physical health. Dietetics courses often require students to learn how to plan meals, in this case, specifically for athletes.
  • Health promotion – Health promotion courses are designed to teach students how to help people live healthier lives by making informed decisions about the food they eat. For example, students might learn how to design after-school meals for kids that are healthy and nutritious.
  • Biology – General and advanced courses in biology, or the study of living organisms, helps students form a basis of understanding of how the human body is built and how to help it perform at it’s best.
  • Physiology – Courses in physiology focus on helping students develop an understanding of how the human body and its systems (i.e., the digestive system) interact and perform.
  • Kinesiology – Sports nutrition programs often have a kinesiology component, in which students learn about the mechanics of body movements. How nutrition and diet influence one’s ability to move is usually part of these courses.
  • Assessment – Sports nutritionists must be able to consult with their clients and assess each client’s specific nutritional needs. Courses in nutritional assessment help build the knowledge and skills needed to examine a client’s diet and prescribe effective plans for improving their health and performance.
  • Research in nutrition – Commonly, sports nutritionist degree programs have a research component that allows students to study in-depth topics related to sports and nutrition.
  • Sports supplements – Sports nutritionists often recommend supplements to their clients that help with everything from digestion to building muscle. As such, students must learn what supplements are accepted by sports oversight committees as well as what supplements to recommend for specific results.
  • Nutrition therapy – Students learn how to use diet and nutrition – including vitamins and minerals – to help athletes perform at their best and to expedite recovery after workouts or sports performance.

How Do You Become a Sports Nutritionist?

Educational Requirements

According to the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, most nutritionists hold a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, food and nutrition, food service systems management or a related field. They complete a program of studies including topics like nutrition, physiology, chemistry and biology.

After college graduation, aspiring sports nutritionists generally enter into an internship program to receive several hundred hours of supervised training. Some internship programs can last up to 12 months. Many colleges and universities offer graduate programs designed to give students the opportunity to specialize in sports nutrition.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree, students can apply for a program at the graduate level to specialize in sports nutrition. Prerequisites for entering a graduate program vary, with some schools requiring an undergraduate degree in a related field like general nutrition or exercise science. Coursework for a master’s degree in sports nutrition typically includes topics such as kinesiology, exercise physiology, exercise and aging, vitamins and minerals, health promotion and sports supplements.

Licensure

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that nutritionists and dietitians are required to obtain a license in most states. Requirements for a state license typically include a bachelor’s degree in an appropriate field, supervised practice and passing an examination.

Some employers prefer a Registered Dietitian (RD) credential, which is administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, part of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The requirements for a Registered Dietitian are similar to licensing requirements. RD’s must complete continuing education courses to maintain their certification.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Candidates should possess an array of skills and personal characteristics to achieve success as a sports nutritionist. To interpret new research, aspiring sports nutritionists must have strong analytical skills and become adept in interpreting scientific studies in order to transform scientific findings in the field of nutrition into practical dietary advice.

Candidates should also display strong people skills to interpret clients’ concerns and athletic goals. The ability to empathize with a client’s dietary struggles is also important.

When clients understand the benefits of a particular diet, they are more likely to follow the regimen. Sports nutritionists often present complicated scientific topics in a simplified and understandable way so lay people can comprehend the concepts and become motivated to make a positive change in their lives.

Organizational skills are also important to manage all aspects of their work in meeting sports nutrition needs, budgeting costs and encouraging clients to meet their goals.

What is a Certified Sports Nutritionist?

To become a certified sports nutritionist, one must complete continuing education requirements and pass a certification exam with a satisfactory score (typically in the 80-85% range). The benefit of being a certified sports nutritionist is that it’s a way to communicate to clients and potential clients that one possesses a higher level of knowledge and skills as it pertains to nutrition, thus enabling you to perform the duties of your job to a higher standard.

In particular, many certification programs for sports nutritionists focus on helping clients to maximize their body’s output by tailoring their nutritional plan to their specific needs. In doing so, certified sports nutritionists are better equipped to help their clients achieve the fitness goals they’ve outlined for themselves.

Typical coursework for certification as a sports nutritionist includes: understanding dietary patterns and developing eating plans, how to use protein to build muscle, strength conditioning, fluid and electrolyte balance, nutrition needs for men, women, and people of different ages, and how to use nutrients for bone health, among many others.

Additionally, from a professional standpoint, having a certification indicates that one is dedicated to the profession and committed to continue learning about nutrition and how it can be used to enhance people’s performance on the field as well as in their lives in general. Certification for sports nutritionists is available through several different certification bodies, including American Fitness Professionals and Associates and the American Sports and Fitness Association.

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Being a Sports Nutritionist?

Those interested in becoming a sports nutritionist should be aware that there are both positive and negative aspects to this profession. Among the benefits are:

  • Helping others – As a sports nutritionist, you can see a tangible change in how people function in their daily lives as well as how they perform in athletic events as a result of the dietary changes you help them make.
  • Plentiful jobs – Sports nutritionists can work in a variety of settings, from high schools working with teenage athletes to professional sports teams. As a result, there are many different job opportunities available.
  • Low educational requirements – Many sports nutritionist jobs are available with just a bachelor’s degree. This is a significant benefit for people that don’t want to invest more than four years in their education.
  • Good job growth – The field of nutrition is growing rapidly, at a 15% rate over the next decade. With that kind of growth, there is expected to be jobs available in sports nutrition for the foreseeable future.
  • High job satisfaction – Since sports nutritionists help their clients lead healthier lives and make positive contributions to their performance on the field, there is high satisfaction with jobs in this field of work.
  • Good earning potential – Jobs in sports nutrition can be quite lucrative, with the top 10 percent of earners making well over $80,000 per year.

There are some disadvantages to working as a sports nutritionist. Some of these include:

  • Competition for lucrative jobs – The best jobs as a sports nutritionist with the highest pay generate a lot of interest. As such, there is a lot of competition for the best jobs, which reduces one’s chances of getting those jobs.
  • Varied schedules – Sports nutritionists often have to adjust their work schedules to accommodate the sports schedules of their clients. That means working some nights, weekends, and holidays.
  • Continuous need for education – Though being more educated and qualified is a good thing, there is a significant investment of time and money required for sports nutritionists to stay on the cutting-edge of the field.

How Much Does a Sports Nutritionist Make?

Half of nutritionists and dietitians earned more than $59,000 in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The top ten percent of nutritionists and dieticians earned over $83,070, while the bottom ten percent earned under $36,910. Approximately 20 percent of dieticians and nutritionists work part time, and the others full time workers.

What is the Job Outlook for Sports Nutritionists?

With increased interest in the importance of diet in promoting health and wellness, the job outlook for nutritionists and dietitians is expected to increase by 15 percent in the ten years from 2016 to 2026. This rate of increase is greater than the average for all occupations. Research showing the critical role of diet in preventing and treating illnesses as part of a preventative healthcare program is expected to lead to an increase in demand for nutritionists.

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